George, Prince of Wales

Regency Era

The Regency era takes its name from the years when George, Prince of Wales, was made Regent for his father, George III who was deemed unfit to rule.  Prince George was officially sworn in as Regent in February 1811 and ended on January 1820 upon the death of his father when he officially became king.  As the First Gentleman of Europe, Prince George was flamboyant and cultured and was known for his charm.  However, in realty he was a hedonist, drunkard and lecher.
Cavendish Square, London

One group that has been romanticized is Upper Ten Thousand or the haut ton, many of which shared the extravagant lifestyle of the Regent. Their members were determined by ancestry and money, and they lives of privilege. Famous figures such as Beau Brummell and Lord Alvanley set fashion, while the grand dames of Almack’s enforced the rules of Polite Society.

While the era is characterized by its elegance in the arts and architecture, the gap between the wealthy and the poor was wide, with many more people living in squalor than luxury, making the times dangerous. There was no centralized police force to deal with crime. Ruffians and cutthroats roamed the streets, and a man or woman who ventured out alone after dark was at risk.
London's Slums

Furthermore, despite the growth of the middle class due to the rise of the industrial age, there was no real climbing the social ladder. The only way for a wealthy merchant to enter the higher echelons of society was to marry into it. Everyone knew his place in society, and the prevailing social values and rules of behavior were rigidly upheld.

Regency House Parties

House Parties were extremely popular during the Regency era and often occurred toward the end of the Season.  Parliament was in recess during August and September which also coincided with the popular hunting and shooting seasons.  Plus, country house parties
 provided a much needed respite from the London’s sultry heat and lent a reprieve to the London duns for those individuals with pinched purses.

Generally, most house parties lasted for three to four days, usually commencing on Thursday or Friday and ending on Monday.  This was mostly due to poor and dangerous road conditions which made travel difficult.  Another factor was distance.  It was hardly worth the travel time if parties were only a night or two when guests had to travel long distances.

Ranging between twenty and thirty guests, most house parties maintained similar schedules. Breakfast was an unstructured affair and usually began at 10 a.m., but the regency dining room would be open from as early as six and remain open until as late as three in the afternoon to accommodate early and late risers. Usually, a large assortment of covered silver dishes graced a sideboard and guests served themselves, although a footman would be available to help.

After breakfast, guests were expected to entertain themselves until it was time for a scheduled activity. This meant that the men would generally participate in hunting, shooting, or fishing activities while the ladies would retire to their bedchambers to write, gather in a salon to gossip or take walks, carriage rides or ride in the parkland or countryside.

Afternoon activities might include croquet, lawn tennis, lawn bowling, archery, picnicking, regency or visiting a nearby point of interest. Rainy day activities might find the men playing billiards while the women embroidered or played cards. Organized activities such as treasure hunts, playing word games, charades involved both sexes and allowed time for flirtations.

Dinner was served early, usually around six, although this too could vary according to a host’s preferences, and was an elaborate affair. Dressed in elegant toilettes, guests would gather a half hour before in the drawing room before proceeding to the dining room. Of course, good breeding demanded that a guest never be late as the hosts would not consider sitting down without all the guests. This could result in guests being served cold or ruined food.

House parties offered opportunities for marriage minded individuals to get to know one another and were convenient circumstances for dalliances and adulterous love affairs. The husbands and wives of the upper classes rarely occupied the same rooms, and in such large houses, guests could easily move around in secrecy. Still, as Mabell Ogilvy, Countess of Airlie, pointed out, “Good breeding demanded that outward conventions should not be violated, but asked few questions as to what went on beneath the surface.”

While these large estates had spare mounts for guests to ride and spare stabling for those guests who wished to bring their own horses, there were some things that were frowned upon. For example, children should never accompany their parents unless specifically included in an invitation. The same went with dragging uninvited guests along without first asking your host. Also, it was perceived as bad taste to arrive with a wagon loaded with luggage as most house parties were of short duration. And above all, guests were expected to conform to the habits of their hosts by not getting in the way or putting extra demands on the house staff.

Gentlemen's Clubs

Memberships were gained by nomination and ballot with birth and family connections the most important prerequisites for admission. The exlusive clubs were located on St. James’s Street where no lady was to be seen walking or driving down without being thought “fast” or causing a scandal. The clubs offered gentlemen a sanctum from home life. Business meetings were often carried out there. Mostly members entertained themselves gambling and placing bets of any kind. Card games included faro, Macao, whist and hazard were often played for high stakes, and dice games were the favoirte form of gambling.


Established in 1693 at 4 Chesterfield Street in Mayfair by an Italian immigrant Francesco Bianco. It began as a hot chocolate emporium and was called Mrs. White’s Chocolate House. It didn’t make the transition into an exclusive club until the early 18th century and became a notorious gambling house. In fact those who frequented the club were called “the gamesters of White’s.” Jonathan Swift referred to White’s as the “bane of half the English nobility.”

In 1778 White’s moved to 37-38 St. James’s Street and in 1783 it was known as the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, while Brooks’s was the Whigs’ club. The establishment consisted of three stories, a basement and a dormered attic. In 1778 the front door was moved to the side to allow the addition of the bow window.

Members were elected by ballot which consisted of dropping either a white ball for approval or a black ball to indicated exclusion. It took only one single black ball to deny a man admission to the club.

The betting book recorded most members’ bets, with entries ranging from sporting events and political development, especially during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Social bets included whether a friend would marry or whom. Tens of thousands of pounds changed hands over frivolous bets or the turn of a card. For instance, Charles James Fox lost £140,000 by age of 25. One of the more outrageous bets involved Lord Alvanley who bet a friend £3000 as to which of two raindrops on the bow window would reach the bottom of the pane first. Such bets could lead to financial disaster.

Horace Walpole reported that “Lord Stavordale, no yet one-and-twenty, lost eleven thousand last Tuesday, but recovered it by one great hand at hazard: he swore a great oath – `now, if I had been playing deep, I might have won millions’.”

The bow window was built in 1811 by moving the front door to the second end window on the ground floor. Inside, a table was place before it with seating reserved for the most socially influential men in the club. This was first given to George Brummell as he was the “arbiter elegantiarum” and his cronies, like Lord Alvanley.

Spying During The Regency Era

Duke of Wellington at Waterloo by Sir Thomas Lawrence

No gentleman would admit to being a spy during the Regency era, for spying was considered an underhanded and dishonest occupation. Yet, without the intelligence that the Duke of Wellington’s spies gathered, the Peninsular War would most likely have had a different outcome.

Probably the one man most responsible for the success of Wellington’s network of intelligence officers was Lt. George Scovell.  He was a prentice engraver and gifted linguist who wanted to be a cavalry commander but was unable to afford it.  He did manage to get a commission in the army, however, and became a quartermaster.  During the Peninsular War, he was assigned to shift through reports from Spanish guerrillas and given a regency book on the art of deciphering. 
Sir George Scovell

The French began using ciphers during the reign of Louis XIV and were making them more complicated. Scovell cracked the code that provided Wellington information that was pivotal in leading his forces to victory at Salamanca, Vitoria, and other battles. In 1815, Scovell was made a Knight Grand Cross (GCB) for his war efforts.

Over time, the British developed a system of military communications and intelligence gathering by recruiting professors, poets, and members of the nobility. Wellington’s own “Exploring Officers” were under the command of the Quartermaster General. They operated on their own, using one or two local guides to help them gather tactical intelligence. They rode behind enemy lines locating their positions, observing and noting enemy movements, and sketching maps of uncharted land. Their job was dangerous, requiring physical fitness and good horsemanship, for they had to be ready to escape at a moment’s notice.

Lieutenant-Colonel Colquhoun Grant

Lieutenant-Colonel Colquhoun Grant was one of Wellington’s intelligence officers. Grant did not consider himself a spy, however, because to do so would mar his status as an officer and a gentleman. In fact, he often wore his uniform behind enemy lines.

At the age of 15, Grant became an infamy soldier, and in 1808 he followed Wellington to Spain and Portugal for the Peninsular War. Wellington knew his forces were outnumbered by the French and had Grant develop an intelligence network of officers and local spies, such as small land owners, professors and clergymen who worked with guerrilla bands. The information they gathered allowed Wellington to make sudden strikes that delivered unexpected blows to French troops.

Guerillas attach a French convey.

Mercenary guerrilla bands were also instrumental in intercepting French messengers. They mercilessly killed the French dispatch riders and stole everything of value, including horses, clothes, and weapons. Most of the dispatches were written in code and hidden in secret compartment in the saddles, which the guerrillas would sell to the British for cash.

Wellington well understood how important the role of intelligence played in his defeating the French. For example, after the Battle of Talavera in 1809, he took 18,000 troops to attach a detachment of French soldiers which he thought was only 10,000 strong. Fortunately, he received a warning in time that the “detachment” really consisted of three army corps, numbering over 50,000 men, thus avoiding a defeat that could have had disastrous ramifications and effected the outcome of the war.

Battle of Salamanca, etched by J.
Clarke, coloured by M. Dubourg.
Scroll to top